Terrence Malick’s debut feature Badlands is a work examining the human need to leave an impression.  And the devastatingly strange ways people go about satisfying that need.  This is seen in equally hilarious and unsettling turns in one of Badlands’ two principal characters, Kit (Martin Sheen), a young man as bizarrely, almost arbitrarily passionate as he is handsome.  The other principal character is Kit’s girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek), a listless teenager and the narrator of the film whose boredom and permanently blank expression are the perfectly odd complement to Kit’s exuberance. The two meet in a small town in South Dakota in 1959 and fall into something they think is love.  Holly’s father is not approving of Kit’s seniority in age and lowness of profession, and so Kit shoots and kills Holly’s father.  The couple then begins a road trip on the run from the law, a trip that careens through the north-central United States and leaves many more deaths in its wake.  “Little did I realize that what began in the alleys and backways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana,” Holly narrates vacantly.

In Badlands, as with the later features Days of Heaven and The New World, we see Malick’s fascination with the world of the young.  After the murder of Holly’s father has come and gone in a dreamlike way, Kit and Holly somewhat indifferently realize they must be on the lam and retreat to the woods.  There they create a guerilla treehouse.  We see Kit, shirtless, crazed and virile, testing out absurd booby traps that surround their fortress of sticks and brambles.  A close-up of Holly’s freckled and angular face reveals her to be crudely applying dark eyeliner like a little girl who has been allowed to play with her mother’s makeup.  Kit fishes with little luck in the river while Holly watches on, bored, her eyes as glassy as the surface of the water… and then, in the background, a car hums along on the nearby highway.  If one notices this small, beautiful detail, it is impossible not to think of all groups of children who traipse out into the woods (really the treed area just beyond the backyard) and pretend to be immersed in the untamed mysteries of the wilderness.  Before it gets dark, all signs of nearby civilization are ignored for the delicate continuation of the dream of self-reliance.

Yet Kit and Holly’s bizarre, amusing camp becomes quickly tainted by the grim reality of their situation.  After all, Kit did not shoot Holly’s father with a toy gun, nor does he shoot the bounty hunters who come looking for them (also equipped with very real guns) with imaginary bullets.  When Kit emerges from the secret, leaf-covered hole he has dug, rifle in hand, he and Holly’s special place in the woods becomes an unsettling combination of a childlike fantasy and a deadly battleground, even momentarily reminiscent of Vietnam.  This disturbing combination of elements haunts the entirety of Badlands.  Just as Kit and Holly regard their murderous spree with juvenile detachment, they are also nonchalantly seduced by the allure of glamor.  In an early scene, Holly drawls, “He looked just like James Dean.”  This resemblance is only reaffirmed by the oddly admiring policemen who finally capture Kit.  When Holly tells us through voice-over that the entire country had begun to look for them, grainy, sepia images are shown of “famous” detectives investigating the scene of the crime.  Hollywood is the two youngsters’ frame of reference and the lens through which they see themselves.  It is not surprising then that Kit views fame (or notoriety) as the greatest legacy, his way of transcending the hum-drum normalcy of middle-America.

And it is indeed hum-drum.  In trouble, even.  Scenes before Kit fires his first lethal shot, there is a quiet moment in an unemployment office.  Kit sits there, frustrated as always, a somber elderly man seated next to him.  An economic recession, at odds with the typical vision of the booming 1950’s, is never explicitly mentioned in Badlands, though it lingers like a ghost in certain scenes.  It also, perhaps, explains Kit and Holly’s later fascination with the rich man’s house they rob and vicariously live in for a couple of hours.  In the first segment of the film, Kit is stuck between a rock and a hard place (hauling garbage and feeding cattle) and his lack of opportunity seems to be an implied catalyst for his ultimate acts of violence.  This isn’t the first time in the movies that economic struggle and going postal have been linked.  Bonnie and Clyde go on their bank-robbing rampage in the midst of the Great Depression.  The outlaw couples in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once are also depression-era young men and women, seemingly driven to crime by the bleakness of their situations.  Though Badlands is less a social critique than it is a portrait of two strange individuals, the film nonetheless fits into a tradition.

Perhaps the most beautifully enigmatic moment of Badlands comes near the end of the film when Kit, now without Holly, gives himself up on a dirt road, a police car in pursuit a fraction of a mile behind him.  Kit fixes his appearance in the rearview mirror, then steps outside and creates a pile of rocks on the ground.  He is erecting a monument at the place of his capture.  A low-angle shot with the rock pile in the foreground shows us Kit in the background, hands above his head in what we can only imagine is to him a half-despairing, half-glamorous moment of surrender.  He stands tall above his self-made monument, effortlessly charismatic and hopelessly doomed.